Rebel Without A Pause
Start-up digital company RebelPlay on why "publisher" isn't a dirty word
Announced officially earlier in the year, RebelPlay is a new UK start-up. But this isn't yet another digital games developer, RebelPlay intends to be a complete publishing operation. Set up by two ex-Sony Liverpool producers Leo Cubbin and Phil Gaskell, the company also boasts financial support from Will Clarke and Paul Higgins, founders of UK movie distribution house Optimum Releasing.
Now the initial set-up is complete, GamesIndustry.biz sat down with RebelPlay to discuss the longer term business plan, how it can help independent developers succeed in digital markets, and why the term "publisher" isn't a dirty word.
Q: Can you tell us a little about the catalyst to start-up? Why production roles at Sony?
Phil Gaskell: We felt that we'd gone as far as we could get at Sony. We could have carried on there but it would have taken a lot longer in terms or commitment. I finished producing Dead Nation and that was number one in the internal first-party downloads and Leo had just mastered LittleBigPlanet 2. So it felt right, time for a new challenge. Initially we talked about setting up a game developer. Despite us being external producers, effectively on the publishing side we were part of the development arm of Sony Worldwide Studios. But we thought it was kind of risky and with the best will in the world I don't know enough programmers to do that, or they are all very happy where they are. So we thought we'd set something up that people don't do - a publishing company. It snowballed from there. We were zigging when everyone else was zagging. Liverpool's synonymous with Psygnosis and Manchester with Ocean and we just thought, 'let's do that'.
Q: You production roles - both internal and external - must have been incredibly valuable as you hunt for talent to work with?
Phil Gaskell: Having five years of solid business development at Sony was great because we would go out and find the game idea - whether on paper or prototype - nurture it through to green light and if lucky enough produce it all the way to the end. If not me then one of my team, so we were managing it from day one to finish. It was an extraordinary end-to-end experience with the game. I'd often talk to my counterparts at Microsoft and they have different departments so they would find it and pass it on to someone else, who would pass it one to some one else… It gave us a really holistic view of inception to release.
A lot of people die with great ideas that are never developed
Leo Cubbin, RebelPlay
Q: And that's exactly what you want to replicate now with Rebel Play…
Leo Cubbin: Once we got the business plan together the big thing was meeting Will Clark and him telling us that what we propose to do might be unique to games but it's not unique to entertainment, this is a business he's ran for the past 12 years.
Phil Gaskell: Having those five years of biz dev enabled us to understand what developers thought they were missing from their relationships - not with Sony but with publishers in general. I was very aware of what was missing contractually and in terms of how developers were remunerated when it comes to the PlayStation Network and digital games. It was quite easy for us to set up a business model that was very weighted towards the game developer. Almost too much so, our first utopian vision was like a charity. If an investors money is going into this they are going to want something for their risk. And that's got to be the intellectual property.
We always said we want three big changes, to change the business model in three ways: No advance on royalty, higher revenue shares, and the way in which a project gets funded. Traditionally you try and push as much to the back of the project as you can with master payments, beta payments and alpha payments. They tend to be much bigger than milestones one, two, and three. So more often than not the developer is sweated early on - you've got to make that payment last three months. That won't work for us. If we're dealing with university graduates that have just set up or young guys who are setting up their own business for the first time they need an easy cash flow. So we bankroll games. In the same way that Optimum funds a movie - if there's 25 people working on a movie that month they pay 25 people's wages. But intellectual property is something that we really need to own.
Q: So is that the big deal-breaker?
Phil Gaskell: When we talk to developers they realise that the ownership of the intellectual property isn't as important as being associated with it and going on a journey with you when you exploit it. Something we do with all our contracts is that by default all developers get first refusal on sequels and ports to do with that IP, so they are effectively intimately connected to that IP through its lifetime. They can exploit it with us and benefit with us.
Leo Cubbin: They get to earn off it whatever happens. So if it becomes a film they earn off it, if it becomes a toy they earn off it. I think a lot of people die with great ideas that are never developed. Everyone has ideas at some point and if somebody is investing in an idea to develop it you have to expect that they are going to take some ownership of the IP. It's a partnership, we don't see it as a big issue and most developers we speak to don't either once they know how we work.
Phil Gaskell: We can rebalance the situation by saying they can recoup costs 100 per cent. They only need to effectively sell 50,000 units of this game before you and us are earning a revenue stream on it. Under a normal deal you'd have to do half a million units or more and you'd be looking at years rather than months to start earning on it.
Q: You're gotten this far with funding from investors who understood the movie market, but did they understand the games business? In the past when movie people declare their intention to get into games it’s a big announcement followed by either nothing or an embarrassingly long silence and then… nothing.
Phil Gaskell: I always liken it to actors who want to be singers and singer who want to be actors.
Q: It's always pretty awful, I've seen David Bowie acting and Sting dancing in Quadrophenia…
Leo Cubbin: But games and film have always been pretty close. There's always been a good connection.
Phil Gaskell: If you look where in film Will and Paul are coming from, they're not coming from $100 million hit-driven Hollywood part. They are actually coming from the indie UK scene - Shane Meadows, up and coming directors, they're involved with Attack the Block, Richard Ayoade. These guys are big supporters of the up and coming indies, and we're the same for games.
Leo Cubbin: They are forward thinking as well they're not looking at what's happening right this second.
Q: In practical terms, you're hoping to have your first game out this year, but what's the 1, 2, 3 year plan beyond that?
Phil Gaskell: Right now we want to hit a number of platforms and we plan to make an investment in all areas of games, from traditional games which is where our background is, all the way through to Facebook, social and browser, which we've got very limited experience in and need to improve our knowledge. We need to have those investments because when you're trying to build a franchise if you have a run away hit on one format you really need to have it on multiple formats. To try and increase the chances of having hits you need to have investments in iOS and Android, tablet versions and consoles as well. You need one of them to get some traction for the others to benefit.
This year we've started off nice and easy because we've had the funding and have had all the usual start-up stresses to deal with. So we've got one title. Next year the plan has us looking at a Facebook, a tablet, two mobile and two console titles. What we might do is take a view on that and perhaps pull some of our investment from 2012 and maybe hit eight or ten titles in 2011. It comes down to how confident we are in managing those titles as a management team and how confident we are in finding the right games to fit those slots and whether we can find good producer talent to manage those games from start to finish. We're confident we can tick most of those boxes, there probably needs to be a few iOS/Android ideas to come along that feel right. The main plan has us doing eight titles a year at full tilt. But anything could happen, right? Vita could completely light up so we could switch our efforts there, or tablets could go completely bonkers.
The main plan has us doing eight titles a year at full tilt
Phil Gaskell, RebelPlay
Q: Does the company need to scale with that, or can you outsource the other services you need as a publishing company?
Phil Gaskell: We want to use as many indie outsourcing companies as we can, there's plenty of good testing houses out there, plenty of good marketing and PR companies, great localisation houses - there's no need to have those functions internally. We're much more like a movie production company. Our core group of people will be a management team bolstered by six or seven talented producers and associate producers. And then a small number of marketing and community management people.
Q: You're happy to call yourselves a publishing company, but with so many developers planning to go it alone and DIY attitudes to getting a game out in the market, do you think "publisher" has become a dirty word?
Phil Gaskell: It's not a dirty word. It is publishing, it is what it is. It took us a while to work it out ourselves. We started calling ourselves a trans-media company but we realised that's a wanky term. I guess we didn't want to piss Sony off when we left on great terms, we have so much respect for that company, they gave me my break in the industry. But we came to the conclusion that we're providing a publishing function, we're worrying about that side of the game, but we recognise that the game development is just as important. There is no pecking order, we don't place ourselves higher up in the food chain, we provide a function that's as vital as the game development function.
What we've learned from developers who have tried to do that function themselves is that it's hard. They do a lot more than you think. There's a load of hidden things - game ratings, PR, marketing.
Q: How are you going to approach marketing, because that seems to be the big challenge for the majority of independently produced games?
Phil Gaskell: Games have traditionally been marketed in a very crude way. It's not contemporary. If you look at the way mainstream brands are marketed they're done in a sophisticated way. Games either say 'actual game footage' or 'not actual game footage'. We're not going to do TV ads, but I've spent a lot of time putting together ads for Sony's digital store and there's so much more that can be done there. The ads that Nintendo do seem to be more grown up and contemporary. We’ve got a lot of ideas to be more creative because we can’t compete when it comes to channel advertising with big publishers but we can compete when it comes to being creative with ideas that are yet to be tried.
Q: Are you also looking at creating you own RebelPlay IP and getting partners on board to develop that?
Phil Gaskell: Yes. My time at Warthog was spent mostly on designing games. When we set the business plan up we didn't know what games were out there, so we had to rely on games that we’d invented ourselves. By consuming a lot of games and being commercially minded you spend a lot of time looking for where the gaps are and for what's relevant. It wasn't that hard to come up with interesting conceptual ideas which serve a gap in the market.
We'll come up with ideas and try to work with a game developer who shares the passion for it. Is that work for hire for us? Not really, because the developer is still applying the creativity there on the idea so we'd still pay the same revenue ideas.
There is no pecking order, we don't place ourselves higher up in the food chain, we provide a function that's as vital as game development
Phil Gaskell, RebelPlay
Q: You've gotten this far with money from the founders of Optimum, but where do you go next? Are you raising more cash at the moment?
Leo Cubbin: Now we've got other investors who are looking to put money into the business. And they are quite a diverse group of investors, but they are all in related fields. All people who understand the business model - DVD publishing, magazine publishing, music licensing - they all understand the business model because they've used it in their field. It's an exciting time to get into the games industry for these people.
Phil Gaskell: We qualify for an EIS tax break (Enterprise Investment Scheme) so any UK investors that want to get involved can offset the investment. £50,000 investment under EIS, if it all went pair-shaped, is £17,000.
Q: We hear a lot about venture firms and those looking to invest - how was that process? Did you find it a healthy scene in the UK?
Phil Gaskell: Its is healthy, yeah. It just depends where you are in your lifecycle as a company. We're a start-up so traditionally venture capitalists don’t tend to invest, they look at one or two year's trading and then they get interested. So the bulk of VCs we spoke to weren't interested, but there are some that are different and are interested. Most of the interest has come from individuals.